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What is stress? A serious side effect of modern life

The stress we experience these days has quite a different meaning to what our ancestors experienced. The increased pressures of modern life and higher demands placed on our time and energy mean many of us are now living in a constant state of chronic stress. This is very different to the acute stress response that used to occur in order to avoid threat and danger. 

The famous physiologist who coined the term ‘stress’, Hans Selye, defined it as ‘the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it’. In other words, stress is your body’s response to a disruption of balance in your body or “inner equilibrium”. It’s the result of chemical reactions that happen within in response to external events (“stressors”), such as getting stuck in traffic or being made redundant. 

It's not the stressor that determines the response. Instead, it's how you perceive the situation that determines your individual internal reaction, which then triggers the stress response. The way you experience and perceive stress can vary from the next person. And there are different types of stress you can experience too: eustress, acute stress and chronic stress.


This is the type of stress that you consider fun and exciting, such as going skiing or skydiving, or even rushing to meet a deadline. It creates an ‘energising’ feeling that's due to the surges of adrenaline it causes.

Acute stress

Acute stress is a very short-term type of stress that can be either positive or more harmful. This is the day-to-day stress you often encounter, like being stuck in traffic, an argument with a loved one or sitting an exam. 

Chronic stress

Chronic stress is the type of stress that seems never-ending and that you can’t escape from, like an extremely taxing job, ongoing financial strain or an underlying chronic health condition. 

Stress response 

When a stressor, danger or threat is perceived by your body, the sympathetic nervous system, known as the fight or flight response, is activated. During this reaction, certain hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released from the adrenal glands.

This causes an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure to give your body the burst of energy and strength it needs to deal with the situation. The increase of cortisol also results in the temporary suppression of the digestive system, immune system and other important bodily functions.

Once the perceived threat has gone, the parasympathetic nervous system, known as ‘rest and digest’ or ‘relaxation response’, is designed to kick in and return your body back to its normal state. But in cases of chronic stress, this response doesn’t occur regularly enough. It can leave you in a near-constant state of fight-or-flight, which can affect your health if not dealt with.

Causes of stress

While acute stress can have positive effects on your physical and mental health, chronic and prolonged stress - resulting in constant, elevated levels of cortisol - can have a serious impact on your health. This can result in things like: 

Elevated blood sugar levels

When you’re experiencing physical or emotional stress, hormones including cortisol and adrenaline are released. These hormones increase your blood sugar levels as they are used to prepare your body for a “fight or flight” situation. But when you’re stressed, these hormones are released even if there isn’t a major physical threat involved. This results in a rise in blood sugar, higher blood pressure and increased heart rate. If you're constantly under stress, your hormones and blood sugar will continue to rise.

Weakened immune system 

Stress raises cortisol levels, which can weaken your immune system if they stay high for too long. Stress can also damage your cells and trigger responses from your immune system, like inflammation, which can make you more susceptible to viruses and infections. 

Impaired digestive system

When you’re stressed, your brain activates the sympathetic nervous system, aka the fight or flight response. It prepares your body to protect itself against danger by conserving functions that aren’t immediately needed for survival, like digestion. The emptying of the stomach is delayed, which can lead to stomachache, indigestion, heartburn and nausea. As the stomach slows down, stress causes increased motor function in the large intestine. So at the same time that you’re stressed, you might experience bowel urgency or diarrhoea. In more serious cases, stress can cause a decrease in blood flow and oxygen to the stomach, which could lead to cramping, inflammation, or an imbalance of gut bacteria.

Sugar or salt cravings 

Stress may impair your adrenal glands’ ability to regulate sodium, and this can lead to salt cravings. Additionally, the brain requires 12% more energy when it's under acute stress. Therefore, if you don’t eat enough when you’re stressed, the brain will use glucose from your body, further reducing blood sugar levels and making you reach for sugary snacks.

Hormone imbalance 

High cortisol levels can affect other hormones, including oestrogen. High cortisol levels can lower oestrogen levels, which create hormonal imbalances. In other cases, circulating oestrogen can also increase the levels of cortisol in your blood, which can also cause symptoms. 

Mood disorders (depression, anxiety and mood imbalances)

Byproducts of stress hormones can act as sedatives. When these hormone byproducts occur in large amounts, which happens with chronic stress, they can contribute to a sustained feeling of low energy or depression.

The continuous presence of stress hormones in your body also affects the function of some parts of your nervous system. Stress hormones may decrease the functioning of cells in your brain that are important for laying down new long-term memories, paying attention, filtering out irrelevant information, and using judgment to solve problems. As a result, people who are chronically stressed might experience confusion, trouble learning new information, difficulty concentrating, and problems with decision-making.

Increased risk of cardiovascular disease

Continuously high levels of cortisol from long-term stress can increase blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, blood pressure and plaque buildup in the arteries. These are all common risk factors for heart disease. 

Ways to manage stress 

Stress management is absolutely crucial for optimal health and longevity. It’s key to reduce your total exposure to all forms of stress, including psychological or physiological. Although it's not possible to remove all stress from our lives, we can take measures to reduce it in most situations. 

Exercise and stress 

Exercise can reduce levels of both cortisol and adrenaline in your body if done at the right intensity and the right amount. In addition, it releases endorphins which are natural painkillers and have beneficial effects on mood and stress levels.

High intensity exercise does temporarily raise cortisol levels as its a form of acute stress, so adjust your workouts to how you feel. Including some high intensity training on days your stress levels are more balanced and focus on more gentle exercise like walking or yoga on other days. Overall, aim to get between 30-45 minutes of daily exercise. 

Social support

Social support is positively correlated with mental and physical health. Try to connect and spend quality time with those in your social network.

Sleep and stress

A lack of sleep results in an increase in stress hormones in your body. Furthermore, chronic sleep deprivation also increases the risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression. Aim to get 7-8 hours of good quality, uninterrupted sleep per night. 

Diet and stress

Stress depletes your body of nutrients, so it's important to replenish these. Avoid skipping meals or reaching for unhealthy snacks as they too can lead to further increase of cortisol in your body. Eat nutritionally dense healthy whole foods and incorporate a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables into your diet. Avoid excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol.

Supplements for stress

  • Vitamin C deficiency is widely associated with stress-related diseases. Several studies show that vitamin C supplementation supports mood, which is likely due to the possible neuro-protective effect of antioxidant compounds in vitamin C (4). Other studies show that vitamin C can reduce the levels of stress hormones in the blood, including cortisol (5).

  • Omega 3 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation and support mood. Overall, omega 3s are great for your brain, nervous system and heart.

  • B-complex vitamins play an important role in metabolism by transforming the food you eat into usable energy. They are also essential for heart and brain health. High doses of B vitamins have been shown to improve symptoms of stress, such as mood and energy levels, by lowering blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine (1) (2) (3).

  • Magnesium: Chronic physical or mental stress depletes your body of magnesium, and low magnesium levels intensify stress, creating a vicious cycle. Magnesium modulates the activity of your body's stress-response system, and studies suggest increasing magnesium intake may reduce anxiety and stress (6) (7).

  • L-theanine is a natural component of green tea leaves that has been shown to reduce stress and promote relaxation. Supplementing with l-theanine, or drinking green tea, can reduce levels of stress and promote relaxation without exerting sedative effects (8) (9).

  • Adaptogens, including ginseng, ashwagandha, maca, rhodiola, holy basil and cocoa, are a class of healing plants that balance, restore and protect your body, making it easier to handle stress by regulating hormones and physiological functions (10) (11).

  • Essential oils such as lavender, myrrh, frankincense and bergamot are also capable of supporting inflammation, the immune system, hormones, sleep and digestion (12).

Relaxation techniques for stress

These techniques activate the parasympathetic nervous system and help to dampen the stress response:

  • Breathing exercises: Take long, slow deep breaths with focus. Breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds, exhale through the mouth for 8 seconds. 

  • Meditation: A mental exercise involving concentration, observation and awareness to calm the mind. There are several different types and techniques of meditation which include visualisation, focusing attention on breathing, reflection and resting awareness.

  • Mindfulness: Focusing your thoughts on the present moment.

  • Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR): Used to relieve muscle tension, stress and anxiety by progressively tensing groups of muscles in the body and subsequently relaxing them.

  • Yoga, tai-chi and qi-gong: Using various postures and movements along with steady breathing to increase clarity and mental focus.


Stress is an unavoidable part of life. Certain types of stress can be good for you, however, chronic stress that can really impact physical and mental wellbeing. 

Taking time to reduce and manage stress is vital for your health. The most important thing you can do when you're going through stressful periods is to make sure you continue to look after yourself. Practice self care and make time to relax and do something YOU enjoy. And when you need to, set some boundaries and learn to say no to requests that are too much for you. 


  1. B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy

  2. Reducing occupational stress with a B-vitamin focussed intervention

  3. The Effect of a High-Dose Vitamin B Multivitamin Supplement on the Relationship between Brain Metabolism and Blood Biomarkers of Oxidative Stress

  4. Scientists Say Vitamin C May Alleviate The Body's Response To Stress

  5. The role of vitamin C in stress-related disorders

  6. Consequences of magnesium deficiency on the enhancement of stress reactions

  7. Magnesium and affective disorders

  8. Effects of l-Theanine on Cognitive Function in Middle-Aged and Older Subjects

  9. Psychotropic effects of L-theanine and its clinical properties: From the management of anxiety and stress to a potential use in schizophrenia

  10. Stress management and the role of Rhodiola rosea

  11. An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract

  12. [The effects of the inhalation method using essential oils on blood pressure and stress responses of clients with essential hypertension]